MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 17, 2000 FROM ROMANS 14:1-12
Our text this morning is Romans 14:1-12. Here, Paul says, “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. 8If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. 10You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. 11It is written:
" 'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.' "12So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
Before we go into any depth with this text, it’s important to retrace the circumstances which almost certainly prompted Paul to write this section of Romans. If we divorce this teaching from what prompted it, we will miss the point. In the Roman church, as we have pointed out, there were many Gentiles and a number of Jews as well. Many of the Jews, as we have seen from chapter two, were still struggling with how certain elements of Jewish law related to the gospel. We saw this in the area of circumcision in chapter two. How does this fit in with the gospel of grace? There were also other areas where these kind of questions were raised.
One such area was the area of Christian table fellowship. We know the early church placed much stock in eating with one another as we should now. It was and is a wonderful way to grow close as a Church family. But what happened when the meal was hosted by Gentile believers who bought their meat from the Gentile market and it wasn’t kosher? How are the Jews, who feel that eating kosher is God’s will for them, supposed to respond to that? Or, what happens when the Gentile church leaders wants to schedule an all church picnic on the Jewish holiday of the Day of Atonement or some other special day? Or, (as some scholars think) what happened when the Gentiles wanted to help brother Philip build his barn on Saturday morning, the Jewish Sabbath?
How are the Jews supposed to react to that? Do they graciously say, “no” to all these things and find a polite way to back out somehow? Do they give these newcomer Gentiles a few lessons in what it means to be a godly person Old Testament style? Do they patronize them by quoting sections of the Jewish law they have no familiarity with? Or, the Gentiles—how do they respond? Do they just find ways to work around what to them are, meaningless, self-imposed Old Testament restrictions? Do they mock the Jews who need to crawl out of darkness and into the full light of the New Covenant? Do they berate them with their superior understanding of what it means to be “free in Christ?” Do you see how life in a mixed church like this was difficult? It is to that set of difficulties Paul addresses in Romans 14:1-15:13. In this section Paul looks at this set of interpersonal dynamics and says with apostolic authority, “THIS is what the gospel says to this issue. THIS is how the gospel impacts this set of circumstances.” Those who have unnecessarily restricted themselves in these areas are “weaker” in faith and they must relate in love to the “strong” in certain ways. And those who do not feel restricted are those who are “strong” in faith and they too must relate to the weaker brothers in a loving way.
Do you hear what this text is speaking to? Often this text is understood as speaking to the issue of “how do believers respond to one another in areas where they disagree on non-essential areas.” Though that is certainly related to this, that is not the precise situation Paul has in mind here. He is answering a more specific question and that is this. How is the church supposed to respond to one another in areas where one group feels strongly (and incorrectly) that some activity or practice should either be avoided or practiced as an expression of love for God and another group rightly believes this is not necessary? That’s the issue?
This is a very difficult text to do justice to today for any number of reasons. First, there is not in our church culture the exact same conditions with respect to the Jews and Gentiles learning together to be loving, liberated Christians. In Paul’s day this was a huge issue because there were some Jews who had followed some of the ritual laws and had kept them and felt that keeping those laws was a way to please God. Then, you had the Gentiles, some of whom had come from a very lawLESS environment and who had differing levels of understanding of the Jews and their religion. When they heard Paul’s teaching that we do not need to be under the Jewish food and calendar laws to be right with God, their response was, “Yeah!! So what’s the problem.”
In the same church, you have the Jews who, when they heard the same truth of liberation from the food and calendar laws, tended to respond with much more anxiety. “Paul, are you sure—I mean, these are right in the Bible—our relatives and friends still practice these—this is a huge part of our worship of Yahweh, the One true God? You’ve already said, Judaism provides the root system of Christianity. Now, you’re saying these matters of the law things don’t count for anything?” Do you hear how those two groups within the early church would gravitate to very different positions on issues relating to the some restrictions in the law? How does the gospel impact those kind of situations?
At Mount of Olives, we are not spending any energy on the issue of whether or not we can eat non-kosher meat and still be faithful to God. That is not a live issue here. In that respect, the teaching in Romans 14 was, in one sense, an example of the growing pains of the early church which was being formed from the roots of Judaism but to that root system was added a huge number of Gentiles. That does not mean this text doesn’t speak loudly for today, but it makes drawing valid lessons from the text difficult. We have to be careful here so as not to abuse the intent of this text. And it makes drawing non controversial lessons from the text virtually impossible.
The reason for this is because the nature of the material here is inherently controversial. As we’ve said, Paul is dividing the church into two groups, those who have strong faith and those whose faith is weaker. That classification alone makes for some potential difficulty. No one wants to think of themselves as “weak” especially when some of the believers who they don’t respect all that much are touted as being “stronger” in the way Paul uses that term. Paul bases those groupings and who belongs in those group on whether or not a person is walking in freedom from bondage in controversial areas like drinking wine which he clearly refers to later on in verse 21. When Paul says, “If you feel prohibited from drinking wine, you are a weaker brother,” that opens a real hornet’s nest.
First, there is debate about what is meant by “wine.” Good scholars like Bob Stein, a leading gospel scholar who taught at Bethel for years, argues that “wine,” as it is used in the Bible, means the wine commonly used at the table which, it is claimed, was diluted to three parts water to one part wine. These scholars claim that for a person to drink any significant amount wine at full strength would have indicated to the culture that you were a drunk. But beyond that disputed understanding of what “wine” is biblically, how is this teaching going to sound to someone who grew up in the home of an alcoholic and who has seen close up the effect wine can have on a person/family? Finally, the issues are inherently controversial because weaker brothers practice the restrictions they do because they firmly believe this is will of God for them.
Imagine a person who genuinely believes that to abstain from a food or activity is God’s will for them and their abstinence enables them to be closer to God in some way. Then, you walk up to that person and say, “Though I don’t find anything sinful in that self-imposed restriction, you don’t need to do it and in fact, the fact that you are restricting yourself here makes you a weaker brother.” They weren’t doing it to be weak—if anything, they tend to think their faith is actually stronger because they restrict themselves in this area. They don’t see this as a “weaker brother” issue. And sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes people exersize freedom in an area NOT because they are strong in faith and desire to live out every ounce of Christian liberty for the glory of God, but because they are lawless. That is, they like to hide behind the teaching on Christian liberty so they can justify a lifestyle of “eat, drink and be merry” because “we’re under grace, not law.”
The area of Christian liberty is a very tricky area especially in an era when so many Christians are practicing lawlessness. Unbiblical marriages, divorce and remarriage are epidemic. Christians go to raunchy movies and watch rancid television—and all of that is justified by the grace of God. Liberty and lawlessness are so often confused today in a church increasingly conformed to the world. Where does Christian liberty end and lawlessness begin? Paul consistently and zealously argues for Christian liberty and condemns legalism. But he also condemns lawlessness.
What all that means on a practical level is this, no matter what contemporary issue you use to illustrate what a weaker and stronger brother is, you’re gonna have a fight on your hands. And the reason is because a weaker brother will probably NOT see the issue as a “weaker brother” issue. And to find these illustrations is very tricky today because I, unlike the apostle Paul, do not speak with apostolic authority. I will make mistakes in my thinking and so will all of us. So this is a difficult text to apply today. Having said that, we must also know that this text has profound implications for the church today as we seek to love each other in what are sometimes very complicated situations.
Now, let’s unpack this text to get it in our heads and try to draw some valid implications from it. As Paul speaks to this issue, he addresses both the stronger brother, who expresses his freedom in Christ, and the weaker brother who feels a restriction in these areas of food and calendar laws. To the stronger brother, he says in verse one, “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.” That is the NASB which is more clear than the NIV. In verse three he gets more specific when he says, “The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not...” Paul repeats that phrase “look down on your brother” or more literally “do not regard with contempt” again in verse 10. What this says to those who are walking in freedom from the restrictions of the Jewish food and calendar laws is, “Don’t look down on these brothers because they are not walking in all their freedom here.”
Think about it. A Gentile believer hosts a dinner party where Jews will be present and he’s serving meat that is not kosher, but is perfectly fine in every other respect. Now, this meat is expensive and it is prepared with loving hands. But, when he serves it, the Jews present, look at him with helpless looks on their faces as if to say, “You expect us to eat this?” At that point, the temptation for the Gentile would be to say or at least think, “Come on, people! What’s the big deal—this is good food and we have prayed over it and thanked God for it and you aren’t going to eat because of some outdated food law—grow up and stop trying to be holier than thou. You are just plain wrong here. Now let’s get on with it and enjoy the meal.” That’s regarding with contempt and Paul tells these stronger brothers they have no right to look down their noses at their weaker brothers.
The second and longer section of the text is reserved for the admonition Paul gives to the weaker brother. His word to the weaker brother is simply this—“stop judging the stronger brothers.” We see this in verse three where he says, “…the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does.” Again, go back to the dinner party. The Gentile serves the Jew non-kosher meat that is ritually unclean. The temptation for them would be to look the Gentile in the eye and say, “You’ve got a real problem here serving us unclean food. You must not be right with God—haven’t you read what Moses said here? The fact that you serve us this food tells me that you really don’t love God very much—certainly not as much as me.” The temptation for the weaker brother is to look at the freedom of the stronger brothers and misinterpret that to mean that they didn’t love God because they weren’t following the laws. This is similar to what the Pharisees did to Jesus when he healed on the Sabbath. They wrongly interpreted Jesus’ Sabbath ministry as an indication that He wasn’t from God. Paul sees this judging and he comes down hard on it.
I see two basic reasons why Paul forbids the weaker from judging the stronger brothers. First , Only God, who is Lord and Judge has the right to judge his servants—not us. In verse four, Paul says, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his master he stands or falls: and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” He reiterates this in verse 10, “For we shall all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written, “As surely as I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.” So them each one of us shall give account of himself to God.” Paul is saying to these weaker brothers who were judging the stronger one’s freedom, “You are way out of line here. In your judging of these people, you have arrogantly put yourself in the place of God—remember the arrangement—God is the Master and Judge and you are the servant and the judgee.” These weaker brothers had put themselves on the Judge’s bench and forgotten that that seat belongs to Someone else. Paul reminds them that they would, in fact one day stand IN FRONT OF THE Judge’s bench to BE judged.
The root sin of humanity is idolatry as we saw in chapter one. We substitute something else for God and that substitute, when you boil it down is always ourselves. The sin of Adam is he wanted to be like God in an idolatrous way and we follow in his footsteps. And this is just one more way we do that—we judge each other. And whenever we do that, we are playing God because God is the Master and we are the servant and one servant is in no position to judge another servant—that role belongs to the Master. We stand in front of the Judge’s bench dependent on the mercy of the Judge. We do NOT sit ON the bench. For us to sit in judgment on an issue like this is completely contradictory to our understanding of the Lordship of Christ where HE, not us will have every knee bent to him and every mouth confessing HIS Lordship. Now, we are not talking about instances where God has appointed the church to practice church discipline or an area where the behavior in question is patently immoral. Those are areas where we are called to lovingly confront and rebuke.
The second reason Paul forbids judging is because A believer whose heart is set to glorify God should be given room to be less than perfect in their understanding of Christian freedom. Why were these Jews following these laws? Was it because they believed the law was the way of salvation? No. If that had been the case, Paul would have castigated them for works righteousness. Paul’s tone here is very different than the one he speaks with in Galatians. NO, These were Jews who understood the gospel was by grace, but whose faith was weak in that they were just not willing to completely cut themselves away from the food laws. They felt it was a good way to glorify God to abstain from non-kosher meat. Even though they were less than liberated in their way of relating to God, Paul indicates they were intent on glorifying God. We see this in verse six, “He who regards one day as special, does so to, the Lord”…“…he who abstains (from eating), does so to the Lord, and gives thanks to God.”
Paul’s point is, even though we can fault these people in their failure to completely live in liberty, their hearts are basically in the right place. They indicate that they eat what they eat for the glory of God because they give God thanks for it. Their intentions are right and that is central in our relationship to God. Paul says the stronger brothers have no right to regard these brothers with contempt because they are doing what they feel in their hearts is service to God. And this is where Paul’s overarching principle comes in as he states it in verse five. He says, “Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.” Because the ultimate issue for God is “where is your heart,” make sure that you are doing what you are doing with the total conviction of your heart that this is what God wants from you.
If you set aside a special day and you believe this is what God wants, it would be sinful for you to give up celebrating it simply because a someone else says it was alright not to. The same is true for calendar laws. If you are convinced you are called to serve God in the area of celebrating a certain Jewish holiday, then DO IT because you should never defile your conscience. You should never do anything before God to please people. You should never refrain from serving God in a certain way simply because it is easier than doing what others are doing. And you should never serve God in a certain manner because when you do it, it makes you feel more spiritual than someone else. Those are all fleshly motivations for serving the Lord in a particular way. The acceptable motivation, even if you are less than complete in your understanding of Christian liberty, is to serve God in a certain way because you believe with your heart this is what He wants. God will work to bring you into more genuine Christian liberty, but the issue of the heart is far more important. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
Let’s make two points of application to this and more will come in the weeks to come as we get deeper into this section. The first is—We must see how horribly foolish and desperately wicked it is to judge each other. This is a great sin and Paul makes this so clear. We are not God and to try to assume His role as a mere servant is the height of arrogance. The next time you’re tempted to do this, picture in your mind a Judge’s bench that is 1000 feet high. You have to crane your neck to see the top of it. It is massive, fit for the cosmic Judge of the universe, Jesus Christ. Rising up to the Judge’s bench is a flight of five steps—each about fifty feet high. Got the picture? Imagine yourself trying to climb up those steps so you can take your seat behind the bench. That is a ludicrous picture, isn’t it? Yet that is not nearly as ridiculous as a sinner assuming the role of Judge over a fellow sinner. Think about how totally ill equipped you are for the task you have arrogantly set out for yourself. When it comes to judging, we MUST remember that we will stand before the bench, not sit behind it.
Let’s say we see a brother or sister engaging in an activity that is not immoral, but is not something we would be comfortable doing (pick one). Let’s say for the sake of argument that he is NOT doing it because he is simply living out his Christian liberty, but because he is in fact, just lazy in that area. Now, we are NOT free to make that judgment, but just for the sake of argument, let’s say what he is doing is sinful from God’s perspective. And as we witness this behavior, we cluck our tongues to ourselves and say, “That guy is such a sinner—doesn’t he know how potentially hurtful that can be? I would never do that.” Do we understand that we, in judging him or her, have committed a sin that is doubtless more noxious to God than the sin they have committed? Because we have assumed the role of God and have played the Pharisee. And judging from Christ’s response to the Pharisees, there are few sins God regards more with more contempt than judgmental self-righteousness. In judging others, we show ourselves to be AT LEAST as sinful as those whose questionable behavior we stand in judgment of. This is a huge issue in the church today.
Second, we must seek to do everything for the glory of God. God’s glory is so important for Paul that he is willing to allow these Jews to continue on in their lack of liberty as long as their hearts are set to glorify Christ. One scholar has said, “Paul can tolerate diverse practices, which do not violate any biblical or moral norm, as long as they are motivated by the glory of God.” We are probably all freer in Christ than these weaker brothers in this area. Eating food that is blessed by a Rabbi is just not a matter of conscience for us here. But the big question is, are we, like they were, motivated by the glory of God? If we feel freedom to watch television, do we do it for the glory of God. If we don’t feel that freedom, is it for the glory of God? If we home-school our kids, do we do it for the glory of God? If we have our kids in public or private school, do we do it for the glory of God or for some other reasons? And if we have chosen any of those three educational modes for our kids, do we judge others who have decided to educate their children differently than we have chosen? If we feel freedom to drink some wine occasionally, do we do it for the glory of God, giving thanks for the blessing? If we are tea-totlers, do we abstain from drink for the glory of God or because we want to please people?
That’s the far reaching issue here in this text. Are we living life with the intentional agenda to do everything for the glory of God? Or, do we just bounce around in our decisions and practices on the basis of cost or expediency or convenience or what other people will think of us? Do we live our lives with the focus on God’s Name or do we just let life happen to us and allow ourselves to be conformed to the world’s or our friends’ mold? May God give us the grace to know our own hearts on these matters and NOT presume to know the hearts of other people as we serve the Lord together.
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